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Native Pathways to Education
Alaska Native Cultural Resources
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Lessons Taught, Lessons Learned Vol. II

A Letter from Idealogak, Alaska


by Timothy Stathis
Lower Kuskokwim School District


March 21, 1992


Marshall Lind
Former Commissioner of Education


Dear Marshall: 

I wanted to write to you about education as it exists in our community and describe the changes that we made here at the policy level that have greatly improved the structure of the educational platform for this community and its people. I think the fruit is now finally ripening as a result of your labors of so long ago to put the definition of education and the direction it would take into the hands of the people of each village. Since the creation of the REAAs and through your terms as Commissioner of Education in which you consciously avoided pre-defining the purpose of education and school structure from the state level, we have seen much of the value of a closer sense of community ownership of the schools through the opportunities provided by your actions. However, the structure and mold of education in Alaska has patterned itself too long on the ways so established throughout the rest of America, so that the organic development of local educational processes has had no place to grow, and people have tended to work within this externally defined mold, never really breaking free of the "old definitions" of education - at least not until this year with what we have done at our school.

We have focused on the core of the problem that has kept school personnel bound and restricted within a structure so foreign to organic development that it has caused the Native people to deem schooling as something very foreign to their own day-to-day life. The school operates as a separate function apart from the harmonious functions of other aspects of community life. After our deliberations on this matter, we narrowed the problem down to two major issues, two policies that needed altering, thereby creating a new definition of the function of education in the community. The whole structure of the school has naturally reshaped itself and is much more aligned with community needs.

The two major changes we made are as follows. First of all we completely dropped standardized testing from the school and in its place made individual innovation the measure of attainment. Secondly, we changed the structure and function of the financing of the school, no longer seeing the funds allocated to our school as being for the school alone, but as money for the community to use for its entire educational agenda. We broadened our definition of education for the village to include progressive development of cultural imperatives through ongoing processes, engendered at the school and continuing out into the community. I'll examine each of these changes in turn, including the reasoning behind them, and see what ramifications they have had as the year unfolded at the school.

It was our perception that the mode of testing itself created a form of education constrained to fit that which was being tested. The very framework of thought required to meet testing achievements formed a structure of educational practice intended to fit the testings' inherent needs. This is a shocking realization when one is ideally flying to meet the inherent needs of the people the school is serving. The mark of testing achievement in schools is not intended to meet the inherent needs of the people, but is a structured form of institutional development designed in a manner completely foreign to the needs of the village and its people. Upon further examination, we saw how the elementary readers and even the subject area textbooks are designed to fit this very alien structure and to support the expectations of required standardized tests, which in themselves have little to do with the perceived needs of the people - the proverbial serpent swallowing its own tail!

We therefore boxed up and banished all these readers and textbooks from our school. This of course created the need for our staff to develop their own teaching materials and/or locate appropriate materials to use from the general store of knowledge in the community and in the library. It is most interesting to note that during this process of material development the teachers were out in the village and many village people were in the school, with the teachers asking the people for advice and ideas, so that this material could be appropriately used in the teaching of their children. The teachers drew from their professional ability to design educational materials and devise methods of instruction, including their knowledge of the outside world and research methods, and the village people drew from their experiential realm of village culture and especially advised on organic learning processes culturally inherent in the people and in the village way of life.

If no standardized measurement of achievement is used, then how can we be sure learning is occurring? But why judge the children in comparison to others a thousand miles away? Anyone who feels the need to measure their students in this way or who feels this is justifiable for the students' own good is only showing their own inability to judge educational achievement by independent perceptions and locally developed modes of assessment. The so-called local measures developed by many district are often misleading, for while they may have localized achievement levels, it is still achievement grading based on a foreign educational structure - still compared to others somewhere else in America. In other words, they are still using the educational goals of others and not goals developed according to the inherent needs of the local people. "Local norms" based on testing requirements for a very different group of people is an obvious false measure. The districts often fear dropping the outer structures altogether and are reluctant to create a whole new structure from within the village setting. How then, can we promote community development through educational pursuits appropriately situated in village life?

It is not hard to measure attainment through the observation of the joy of learning experienced by our students throughout their educational pursuits in the village. "Final tests" are demonstrations of individual or group innovation in educational projects. Who needs Mr. SRA's or Mrs. CTBS's opinion? The children, school personnel and community members of all ages are doing projects of real value in the community. Inspiration for learning isn't for some false "grade" of their ability to perform in a walled-in facility -the inspiration of my students comes through a natural desire to produce something that is recognized by the people of their community. We have discovered that their wanting to serve their community is an innate desire and therefore a natural motivator in educational pursuits. It naturally carries over to the desire to serve their community or their own family by going to college or in seeing themselves as a natural asset to their community upon their graduation.

Because the educational mode is based on the inherent needs of the community, we are finding a tremendous amount of involvement in educational projects and even in the basic learning processes of reading and math at the first and second grade levels. Because the people took part in the development of the materials and in ideas for community projects, they are by their own desires taking part in activities. Many of these activities, because they have a real value for the everyday life of the people, are happening outside the school building. And because so many who have already "graduated" are involved, we feel we truly have developed the school-without-walls. The new mode of our financing policy reinforces this realization.

As I mentioned, we no longer see the funds allocated to us by the state for education as money for the school facility to use for education within its walls only, but have developed an attitude that this money is for the community to be used for its broader educational purposes. So instead of serving the children all within our walled structure, we base the allocation of money for projects on perceived community desires and needs that children themselves can participate in identifying. Coupled with the development of our own educational materials based on community development input, this has opened up a whole new world of wondrous accomplishments for the school to facilitate for the people of our village.

Our school day never stops; does learning ever cease at a special hour in the day? By reallocation of our funds, we have made the school facility available from very early in the morning to late at night (teachers being hired to cover certain of those hours rather than only daytime hours). Teachers are often running projects in the evening out in the village as well. We haven't received any more money for the extended hours, but have redefined priorities, no longer putting such great emphasis on the 8:00 to 4:00 time zone.

Most of the basic reading skills, math skills, and library research, as well as studies and discussions of current events, are done in regular hours, but in this too there is a great change. Much of the instruction and guidance is done by recent "graduates" as tutors and by parents. This has freed up some of our regular teachers to offer programs after school and at night. In the evenings we have the greatest natural integration of young and old in the learning process, and, I might add, the greatest meeting and integration of cultures. Local people are sponsored (financially) to offer educational programs on their knowledge of arts, crafts, and dancing, and alternate to this are our professional teachers offering programs in their abilities in the arts, crafts and international dancing.

Each evening of the week is scheduled for a particular learning and sharing environment. Monday evenings: visual arts, Native and from our teachers; Tuesday evenings: crafts, Native and from our teachers; Wednesday evenings: to the stage - plays of Native stories and legends, and international folk tales and theater; Thursday evenings: dancing, Native and international; and Friday evenings: talking circles - usually with an agenda of topics to discuss at the start, which leads to many other topics. Working around church schedules, we sometimes have Potlatches or show movies on Saturdays and Sundays whenever sports events aren't happening (they usually do on weekends). And it goes without saying that all ages, young and old, are together sharing in these events. Some come some nights and others come other nights. Some come every night!

One question that might arise in your mind is what about graduation requirements? If we are indeed removing the walls between school and community and all ages seem to be getting involved, when is there a grand exit from the program, based on completion of formal "schooling."

Well, this is probably the most difficult to believe, but this is how we have worked it out. First of all there are only two reasons one would need to define a "graduation" date: 1) because of the state-allocated funds based on student "enrollment;" and 2) college readiness. Let's start with the latter. We have found that those who have developed an inner desire to go to college are tending to ask the question of their readiness on their own. Instead of some stale list of requirements imposed on the student body to define when they are "ready for college," they develop a sense of what they themselves need to know in order to make that step. And when they start to pursue this idea, they start building a momentum of inspiration and self-motivation to pursue the necessary studies (guided by our teachers) in this direction. They themselves know when they are nearing readiness for college and it's at that time that we help them achieve mastery in all necessary preparations to reach that goal. You see, in this way, never having a cut-off date or pushing them to graduate, we don't lose them from the educational facility, as is done elsewhere when a student "graduates," but doesn't at that time want to go to college. With us the educational process remains in a continuum. Even those who never chose to try college remain in the community continuum of educational endeavors, because as I have shown, the whole community is involved in the educational program. All are helping educate even as all are being educated. As far as the financing from the state is concerned, that is a simple matter - we base it on age. We tell the state officials we have so many children ages 5 to 18 and that's that!

Well, Marshall, founder of decentralized education in Alaska, I hope I have given you a picture of the educational circumstances established in our community that has carried the momentum forward from state structures of educational ideology to the ideology you intended from the beginning, i.e. an inherent growth of progressive cultural regeneration through an institution that would become as much a part of the community life as the land itself. We are carrying onward the torch you lit.

Yours Truly,
Timothy Stathis

 Husky Block Print


Ray Barnhardt

Part I * Rural School Ideals

"My Goodness, People Come and Go So Quickly Around Here"
Lance C. Blackwood

Parental Involvement in a Cross-Cultural Environment
Monte Boston

Teachers and Administrators for Rural Alaska
Claudia Caffee

The Mentor Teacher Program
Judy Charles

Building Networks
Helen Eckelman

Ideal Curriculum and Teaching Approaches for a School in Rural Alaska
Teresa McConnell

Some Observations Concerning Excellent Rural Alaskan Schools
Bob Moore

The Ideal Rural Alaska Village School
Samuel Moses

From Then To Now: The Value of Experiential Learning
Clara Carol Potterville

The Ideal School
Jane Seaton

Toward an Integrated, Nonlinear, Community-Oriented Curriculum Unit
Mary Short

A Letter from Idealogak, Alaska
Timothy Stathis

Preparing Rural Students for the Future
Michael Stockburger

The Ideal Rural School
Dawn Weyiouanna

Alternative Approaches to the High School Curriculum
Mark J. Zintek

Part II * Rural Curriculum Ideas

"Masking" the Curriculum
Irene Bowie

On Punks and Culture
Louise J. Britton

Literature to Meet the Needs of Rural Students
Debra Buchanan

Reaching the Gifted Student Via the Regular Classroom
Patricia S. Caldwell

Early Childhood Special Education in Rural Alaska
Colleen Chinn

Technically Speaking
Wayne Day

Process Learning Through the School Newspaper 
Marilyn Harmon

Glacier Bay History: A Unit in Cultural Education
David Jaynes

Principals of Technology
Brian Marsh

Here's Looking at You and Whole Language
Susan Nugent

Inside, Outside and all-Around: Learning to Read and Write
Mary L. Olsen

Science Across the Curriculum
Alice Porter

Here's Looking at You 2000 Workshop
Cheryl Severns

School-Based Enterprises
Gerald Sheehan

King Island Christmas: A Language Arts Unit
Christine Pearsall Villano

Using Student-Produced Dialogues
Michael A. Wilson

We-Search and Curriculum Integration in the Community
Sally Young

Artist's Credits



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Last modified August 18, 2006